Sister Lydia Penny: “Like a Ministering Angel”

Thousands of Black women provided important work to the Union army in various roles. (loc)

ECW is pleased to welcome back Tim Talbott. Tim originally sent this post to us for Women’s History Month; we apologize for the delay in getting it up.

We are fortunate that several United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers chose to write from their camps to newspapers who were supportive of their efforts, relating their experiences in the Union army during the Civil War. Without these public missives, we would know far less about numerous aspects of their service. Newspapers like, The Anglo-African, the New Bedford Mercury, and particularly the Christian Recorder—a sheet published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Episcopal Church—all printed soldiers’ letters.

Quartermaster Sgt. James H. Payne of the 27th United States Colored Infantry (USCI), a regiment raised in Ohio, wrote to the Christian Recorder on December 21, 1864, telling the brief biography of Lydia Penny, the wife of a 5th USCI (also recruited in Ohio) who ministered to the wounded in the wake of the Battle of New Market Heights. The Christian Recorder printed Payne’s letter in their January 7, 1865 issue.

Lydia Penny probably told Payne her story after the formation of the XXV Corps in early December 1864. Previously, the 27th USCI was in the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and the 5th USCI was in the XVIII Corps, part of the Army of the James. While in separate armies, these two regiments did not serve together. However, after the creation of the XXV Corps, the USCT division in the IX Corps transferred to the Army of the James.

Surviving historical records corroborate details of Lydia Penny’s story. Sgt. Payne’s service records confirm that he indeed served at that rank in the 27th USCI. Payne was born just across the Ohio River from the Buckeye State in Mason County, Kentucky. His records indicate that he was free before April 19, 1861, but do not state whether he was born a free man or if he emancipated himself. He was apparently living before and during the early part of the Civil War in Wyandot County, Ohio, where he enlisted on March 5, 1864.

In his letter to the Christian Recorder, Payne (also sometimes spelled Pain in his records) explains that Lydia Penny, who he referred to as “our very worthy and eminent sister and mother in the army,” was born enslaved in 1814 in Blount County, Tennessee. Penny labored for her East Tennessee enslaver as a cook. Unfortunately, her situation was like that of so many other enslaved women. Payne related that “she was at the time only a girl; but . . . subsequently became the mother of children whose companionship she had long been deprived of through slavery, and that she was left a widow to suffer the torments of cruel oppression.”

From those comments, one can infer that Lydia’s children were either sold from her or rented away, leaving her unable to see and mother them. Lydia herself became a victim of the internal slave trade when a German butcher in faraway Memphis purchased her. After “a falling-out with her Dutch mistress,” Lydia informed her enslavers that she intended to run away. She successfully fled and hid among friends in Memphis until the Union army occupied the city, probably during the summer of 1862. Lydia eventually made her way into the Union army’s lines and became a cook for the soldiers. While fulfilling that role, “and having no one in particular to befriend or protect her, prudence dictated the propriety of making selection of a companion.” Traveling with the Union army in Memphis was Thomas Penny, a Black man, who was working as a servant in a three-month White regiment.

Payne informed the Christian Recorder’s readers that Thomas Penny was “a native of Pennsylvania.” After the regiment’s term of service was up, Thomas and Lydia traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Thomas enlisted in the 5th USCI, on July 10, 1863. Thomas Penny’s service records state that he was born in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and signed up at age 47, which made him just a couple of years younger than Lydia. Payne wrote that Lydia “felt it to be her duty to go along with her husband, not merely on account of the love she had for him, but for also the love which she had for her country—that the cause which nerved the soldiers to pour out their life-blood was her cause, and that of her race . . . .”

Deep Bottom Landing (loc)

According to Sgt. Payne, Lydia Penny was known by the USCT soldiers as “’the mother of the army.’” Payne claimed that “Sister Penny . . . is not tired of service, nor does she think of leaving the field until the last gun is fired and peace declared, and every slave is freed from captivity.” Payne provided a vivid practical example of the invaluable service Penny provided to the USCT soldiers: “Many of our officers and men who were wounded at the battle of Deep Bottom [New Market Heights]* will never forget the kind deeds of Sister Lydia Penny, who went among them and administered to their wants as they lay weltering in their blood on the James River, near Jones’ Landing.”

There, Lydia Penny was, “the only woman present, like an angel from above, giving words of cheer, and doing all in her power to relieve the suffering of the wounded and dying.” As a comforter, “Sister Penny was seen, like a ministering angel, or one of those holy women who in primitive days administered to Christ and his apostles. She gave them water to drink and bread to eat, and assisted the surgeons in dressing their wounds.”

Hospital transports like the Thomas Powell, shown here, carried wounded USCTs to hospitals at Fort Monroe and Portsmouth, Virginia.

As the wounded USCTs were loaded onto hospital transports that conveyed them down the James River to Union hospitals at Fort Monroe and Portsmouth, Virginia, “she left her tent and all behind and went on board the boats to minister to their comfort.” And when the wounded “were delivered into the hands of careful nurses, Sister Penny returned to her tent, where she waits to administer to the wants of the afflicted soldier.”

It is quite probable that we would never know about Lydia Penny’s story and her compassionate efforts on behalf of the USCTs without Payne sharing it through the pages of the Christian Recorder. Here was a woman, who bravely joined her soldier husband in the army, risking her health and sacrificing her comfort for a better future; a future without slavery, and with the hope for liberty, equality, and citizenship in the United States.

Thomas Penny’s service records show he mustered out with the 5th USCI on September 20, 1865 at Carolina City, North Carolina. Lydia Penny appears in the 1870 census in Cincinnati, Ohio’s 14th Ward, as 56 years old and living in a boarding house without Thomas. It is possible that Thomas Penny died between the end of the war and the recording of the 1870 census. Lydia’s birthplace—noted as Blount County, Tennessee in Sgt. Payne’s letter—was Virginia. The 1870 census also indicated that Lydia could not read or write. Sister Penny also appears in Cincinnati’s 1875 and 1888 city directories. In 1875, Lydia worked as a milliner, and in 1888, cook was her given occupation. Lydia Penny lived at least until 1890 when she filed for a pension for her husband’s service in the 5th USCI. However, after that, she disappears from the historical record.

Just like the USCT soldiers she aided, we honor and remember Sister Lydia Penny, and all the other Black women who provided medical aid, encouragement, comfort, and service to the United States army during the Civil War.

1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, Co. G, 5th USCI, received the Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of New Market Heights. (loc)

*Edwin S. Redkey, the editor of A Grand Army of Black Men, in which Sgt. Payne’s Christian Recorder letter appears, interpreted Payne’s mention of the “battle of Deep Bottom” as the First Battle of Deep Bottom, noting the date “[July 27, 1864].” However, no USCT regiments participated in the First Battle of Deep Bottom. Brig. Gen. William Birney’s USCT brigade participated in the Second Battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864, but the 5th USCI, whom Lydia Penny served with, was not in that brigade. Sgt. Payne’s mention of the “battle of Deep Bottom” most assuredly refers to the Battle of New Market Heights (September 29, 1864), also sometimes referred to in military records as the Battle of Deep Bottom. The 5th USCI played a conspicuous part in the Battle of New Market Heights, where they endured significant casualties and four of their soldiers received the Medal of Honor for courageous actions.


Tim Talbott is the Chief Administrative Officer for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, and the former Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia. He is also the founding member and President of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association. Tim maintains the “Random Thoughts on History” blog and has published articles in both book and scholarly journal format. His current project is researching soldiers captured during the Petersburg Campaign.


The mission of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association is to commemorate and educate. We seek to erect a monument at the site of the Battle of New Market Heights honoring the United States Colored Troops who served in the Third Division of the XVIII Corps (Army of the James). Among these men were fourteen African American soldiers and two white officers who received the Medal of Honor for acts of heroism on September 29, 1864. We also seek to educate the public about this significant military victory by the United States Colored Troops. More information is available at https://battleofnewmarketheights.orgAs part of a collaboration between ECW and BNMHMEA, this piece is cross-posted at their website. 



1870 United States Census, accessed via

1875 Cincinnati, Ohio City Directory, accessed via

1888 Cincinnati, Ohio City Directory, accessed via

Complied Military Service Records for Quartermaster Sgt. James H. Payne, 27th USCI, accessed via

Compiled Military Service Records for Pvt. Thomas Penny, Co. B, 5th USCI, accessed via

Redkey, Edwin S., ed. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 123-235.

U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1834, accessed via

5 Responses to Sister Lydia Penny: “Like a Ministering Angel”

  1. thanks Tim, great story … interesting that Lydia stayed with Thomas during his service … that was not uncommon during the Revolution when women were officially carried on army muster roles serving as cooks, seamstresses, nurses … and they were usually one of the soldiers wives … i wonder how common that was in the CW … thanks again for remembering Lydia’s story.

    1. Thank you Mark. The only other similar situation that I’ve come across with USCTs is at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. Many formerly enslaved wives came with their husbands to Camp Nelson when the men enlisted in the army. However, I don’t recall any of them following those regiments once they left Camp Nelson. I think Lydia Penny’s story is pretty unique, but if her words are taken as she stated them through Sgt. Payne, she felt she had a contribution to make and she certainly did.

  2. I certainly hope that Lydia Penny’s story is a true reflection of actual circumstances. The earliest advocates to recruit Northern blacks to serve had anything but noble motives. According to the surprisingly objective study (at least for modern academia) titled “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861 – 1867, Series II: The Black Military Experience, “Northern advocates for black soldiering had two primary motives: First, they claimed blacks had a strong resistance to subtropical diseases; Second, blacks made more preferable cannon fodder than whites. When facing conscription quotas, Northern States sought to meet their quotas with blacks in order to avoid doing so with whites.”

    Early Northern Black enthusiasm to serve in the USCT quickly waned when black troops were paid three dollars less than their white counterparts, and were deducted an additional three dollars for uniforms. The August 15, 1863 edition of “The Christian Recorder” stated blacks were expressing shock that any blacks at all were enlisting “as if they were receiving full wages and all the rights of citizens.” The December 26, 1863 “Christian Recorder” called it preposterous “for sound able bodied men to go to work for about six or seven dollars a month.” Even black USCT soldiers were some of the loudest voices warning blacks not to enlist. They warned of injustices against both them and their families. In a February 20, 1864 edition of “The Christian Recorder,” a member of the 6th USCT complained that his “wife at home is almost starving.” Most likely a source of sustenance was the primary motive for Lydia Penny to accompany the Union Army. The majority of Northern blacks were ostracized and forced to live in desperate circumstances. Wives of the USCT sought to accompany their husbands to military installations for survival, but such attempts were soon turned away to fend for themselves.

    By 1864, black enthusiasm was long over, and Northern recruiters were calling for the conscription of blacks “wherever they are to be found.” Northern recruiters promoted “an army that will put down the rebellion without further draft on the Northern whites.” As black volunteers dried up, recruiters turned to deceit, coercion, and intimidation to fill the USCT ranks. Some States and counties offered bounties to encourage volunteers. The January 1864 “Dayton Daily Empire” reported blacks were regularly swindled out of this money. Under a Colonel named Pardee, blacks were swindled out of money that was “divided between the Colonel and the recruiting officer.” In August 27, 1864 “The Christian Recorder” reported that enlistee William McConslin and all other blacks enlisted in Bloomington, Illinois, never received their money. Regarding black recruitment, the January 9th, 1864 edition of “The New York Herald” stated, “the administration of drinks containing narcotic poison, has been for months, one of the ordinary methods of promoting enlistment… mere boys between fourteen and seventeen years of age were made drunk and then enlisted.” Kidnapping was also a recruiting method to enlist blacks. The January 9, 1864 edition of “The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun“ reported that a Colonel Fishback had engaged “in stealing negroes from all over the State to save Indianapolis from the draft.” A black man by the name of William Nelson wrote his own memoir titled “The History of William Webb”in which he told of his being incarcerated and pressured every day for two weeks to enlist. In February of 1865 it was reported to Lincoln that Lt. Colonel John Glenn was “forcing negroes into the military service…even tortured them… riding them on rails and the like – to extort their consent.”It is astonishing how far different the historical reality is regarding Northern USCT enlistment from the depiction in popular films such as “Glory.” And when recruiters looked South to fill the ranks with freedmen, according to the records of the Gideonites the recruitment practices become worse and even deadly.

  3. It’s sad that some people would like to diminish the service of the USCT by implying they were all forced to serve.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: